The Tiger is one of the most common and generic mascots in all of college athletics. Some Tigers are good, and some are, well... not so good. Unfortunately for the Missouri men’s basketball team, it’s been more of the latter this season.
That’s not to say Missouri can’t give other Tigers trouble. Against No. 25 LSU on Tuesday, Missouri led for all but 22 seconds through the first 35 minutes before faltering late. Though Reed Nikko said during media availability Friday that it’s hard to take moral victories from the loss, he also said it served as a reminder that Missouri can battle with the top teams in the Southeastern Conference.
The players will have to keep that reminder in their minds, since Missouri hosts Auburn on Saturday for its second straight matchup with against a set of Tigers.
“We’ve said all season long that we feel like we have the pieces to beat one of those teams, we just haven’t performed well,” Nikko said.
Auburn is arguably the top team in the conference and among the top teams in the nation. The team is tied with LSU and Kentucky for first-place in the conference but holds the SEC’s best overall record at 22-2. The Tigers also rank highest among conference teams in the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches’ Poll (No. 11), in the NCAA’s NET Rankings (No. 13) and in the Committee Ranking (No. 13).
So yes, these Tigers will be no easier — and most likely tougher — for Missouri to knock off than the Tigers from Baton Rouge.
“We expected that going into the season, especially with what they had returning,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked about Auburn’s status among the elite teams. “They lost two very good guards, but you knew they had a lot returning, a lot of experience.”
Auburn is a solid team from top to bottom. Though freshman phenom Isaac Okoro is questionable to play Saturday, the Tigers are still a well-balanced team all around and could have five seniors starting against Missouri’s younger lineup. Austin Wiley is a force on the boards on both sides of the ball, and even in Okoro’s absence, Auburn still has numerous guys who can go and get a bucket.
“They’ll do what they do,” Martin said. “... (J’Von) McCormick and (Samir) Doughty, two guys, three including (Okoro), guys that can make plays off the dribble. Guys (in a) late situation, want the ball in their hands to make plays, so they still have two talented guys that’ll do that. Two experienced guys that can do that.”
Breakout backcourt duo
Dru Smith has been Missouri’s rock since conference play started.
Smith has consistently been one of the best (if not the best) players on the court for the Tigers. Since SEC play started, Smith has played less than 30 minutes just once, has twice as many games with three or more assists than two or less, and has scored 16 points or more points as many times as he’s finished in single digits. He also ranks among the top 20 players in the country in free throw percentage at just under 90%.
Considering an ankle injury has clearly bugged him at times over the past few weeks, his play has been impressive.
“I just try to play normal, just try not to worry about (my ankle),” Smith said. “I mean, if it’s gonna hurt it’s gonna hurt at the end of the day, so just go out there and do whatever you can to play as normal as possible.”
Smith’s production has come when Missouri sorely needs it, as Jeremiah Tilmon (foot) and Mark Smith (back) remain sidelined. Martin told reporters Friday that, though he’s not 100% certain, it’s more than likely that neither will play against Auburn.
Dru Smith’s leadership without two of the presumed three best players on the team, then, has been invaluable for the rest of the Tigers.
“Just to see how he’s doing, very appreciative to have him on your team,” Javon Pickett said. “Just learning from him throughout practices and stuff like that, throughout the game. He’s a great leader for us.”
But in the absence of Missouri’s injured stars, and especially in Mark Smith’s absence, Xavier Pinson has also answered the call.
Mark Smith didn’t play in the second half against Georgia, and in his place, Pinson dropped 16 points to help the Tigers erase what had become a 20-point Bulldogs lead. In the four games since, Pinson has averaged about 13 points, three assists and four rebounds and has shot 38.9% from deep.
He still sometimes has frustrating gaps in his decision-making, but Pinson is proving he can be counted on as the lead guard.
“I think I’ve seen his confidence grow, and I think you just see him being more aggressive and you just see him a little more comfortable,” Dru Smith said. “He’s making the right reads more times than not and I think he’s just continuing to grow and continuing to be a great player.”
Focused on (not) fouling
Auburn is not an elite free throw shooting team, making just 67.4% of its shots from the foul line, which ranks 274th in the country.
What the Tigers are elite at, though, is getting to the foul line, as they rank second in the country in total free throw attempts (650) and fifth in free throw rate (44.2, according to KenPom). That doesn’t bode well for Missouri, who ranks 335th with a defensive free throw rate of 44.3.
As can be seen from Missouri’s loss to LSU, regardless of what a team is shooting from the line coming in, if you put your opponents on the line enough, the ones that do go in are going to add up. Missouri committed 25 fouls against LSU, who took 34 free throws (and made 29) compared to just 13 for Columbia’s Tigers.
A minus-21 free throw difference in a four-point game? Not a recipe for success, which is why Missouri must focus on keeping its foul count low (as if that hasn’t been said enough).
“We gotta eliminate the ones that are 94 feet away from the basket. We can’t be fouling in the backcourt,” Nikko said. “I think just eliminating those will be big, because those little ones add up and get us in trouble.”